The otherworldly, avant-garde masks that the Icelandic music icon, Björk, dons in videos and live performances are the works of James Merry, an eccentric British artist drawn by the intimacy of hand pulling needle and thread. He elevates hand embroidery, merging traditional techniques with a futuristic application. “For me, one of the appealing aspects to work in such an ancient and traditional medium is how open that makes it to quiet subversion,” he's quoted on the Björk website.
Awed by the precision of the stitchwork in the comprehensive exhibition, Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Merry delightedly accepted a commission from the venerable London institution to create The Embroidered Gaze, designed for the museum’s membership pack. Using cutting-edge eye-tracking technology to “map out the gaze” of the viewer across museum sculptures, he divined a seductive new vocabulary for the embroidery medium.
Lured by the romance of the Reykjavik mountainside, Merry creates magic from his small cabin, embracing themes of transformation and metamorphosis on an embroidery hoop, mastering a craft long associated with women.
Bjork wearing James Merry, Photo by Santiago Felipe
In James Merry's romance of the embroidery craft, the embroiderers of Complete Unknown–all men–find a kindred spirit, reimagining the possibilities of traditional hand embroidery with an innovative twist and erasing the boundaries of what it can be and by whom it is created.
In Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India, a city steeped in the embroidery traditions of the Mughal empire, expert craftsmen, known as karigars, led by master embroiderer, Aftab Khan create the exquisite hand embroideries that are hallmarks of the Complete Unknown brand. Advancing the craft from traditional motifs of 17th-century royal lineage to an edgy, new millennium language, these artisans transform feared beasts into works of art, exalting the beauty of their wild ferocity.
The latest additions to the collection push the provocative design even further with incomplete embroidery, a distinctive new Complete Unknown detail. With exacting precision, the karigars use the centuries-old Aari technique. In a rhythmic motion, the gilded thread glides through fabric held taut to a frame until the animal faces partially emerge in sumptuous gold. Creating shadow and mystery in the fearsome snarl of the wolf and the leopard, they conjure visions of metamorphosis, coming into the raw edges of being. They require the mind to fill in the missing information, leaving it open to myriad interpretation.
The Limited Edition series of crossbody bags, with its incomplete embroideries of fierce wolves and leopards, venture into uncharted territory—subverting expectations of visual completion—a seduction with the unknown.